Not being an asshole is actually kind of hard

(Disclaimer: This is a very “me” post since I’m the only anchor I feel safe to use. And I’m trying to work it out. Apologies.)

Many, including myself, have said that “not being an asshole” is easy; that decency isn’t a lot of work. I wonder how much truth there is to this.

On the one hand, not harassing women, threatening people with rape or death, etc., is actually quite easy: You just don’t. You don’t act at all. But we don’t describe non-harassers as good or decent people: That’s just the norm. We should here take note of people who expect prizes for being not-harassers, not-threateners, and so on. For some people, this is an effort worthy of reward instead of the barest, coldest foundation for decency.

On the otherhand, if you want to try be a good person toward others, you’ve got a lot of work filled with fuck ups.

Consider feminism.

I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a feminist – or any -ist – beyond atheist. Indeed, I don’t even call myself a liberal or progressive. The reasons are boring, except to say that is how I define myself. But regardless, much of my work is in support of feminist friends, against sexism and is considered feminist. I have no issue if that’s what others wish to call it.

The problem is I am not a woman. I am going to fuck up and say something stupid. I’m going to support the wrong people or use the wrong phrase; I’ll fuck up terminology and phrasing.

Again: I’m not just “not-harassing” or “not-threatening” women. I am attempting to actively and vocally support them and causes related to making society more inclusive. Whether that’s street harassment or online gaming. This is also why I target Nintendo, for example, for their unthinking homophobic prejudice. Inclusion matters beyond appeals to me as a straight dude.

But this almost always means I’m fighting to support those who are not like me.

Of course, as a non-white person there is the added aspect of racial inclusion – since I’ve encountered everything from claims about my language ability and sexual habits (namely camels) because of my Arabic name to dismissal of race concerns entirely, as irrelevant.

And in terms of supporting those not like me: I’m going to fuck it up.

To repeat: “not-harassing” is the default; vocal support is decency or good. The latter is done precisely because you want to create a more safe environment.

But yes: it seems decency is hard because you will fuck up, since you’re trying to shed light and deal with concerns about a broad group of people who are not you.

This, however, shows an important corollary: being an asshole is easy.

I’m unimpressed with people who double down on their bigotry, sexism, blind-sided ideas of what is or isn’t good for a group they don’t belong to: It’s one of the main reasons I abandoned active atheism. It’s easy to ignore the concerns of others as bluster, even when you claim to be supporting them. It’s easy to be a white, straight man and tell people daily affected by bigotry in large and small ways, to grow a thicker skin when society itself is the skin you wear. Tearing it off in pieces, to let others be part of it is hard when you’re wrapped in it for so long. But it’s right. It’s moral. And you can spot an asshole by the ease with which he utters his convictions, with the comfort he feels in support.

I, for example, always feel uncomfortable supporting women and LGBTI people (spoiler: I do not consider myself an asshole. Many disagree). This is the main reason I use my immunity as a man to undermine that immunity, under the banner of entitlement. I target what men are doing wrong, what men must do better. I use the one identity that unites me with those who often oppress and convey bigotry, who reinforce toxicity, to target their wrong actions.

The point is that being decent or good is difficult, because we’re being decent in terms of people who aren’t like us. We will fuck up and we should try surround ourselves with those who can help us, guide us and correct us. We should be uncomfortable in our support because, for example, feminism isn’t designed for men’s comfort – it’s designed for everyone’s inclusion, which means eroding long-standing entitlement men have.

Finally, you are not owed praise for being not-harasser and you are not owed praise for being decent. People who do this are precisely where that “white knight” label comes from, tarnishing efforts premised on morality with the brush targeting those who do so for creepy personal or sexual advantage (a minority that still has far reaching consequences; you only need one creep to ruin your day).

In conclusion: being an asshole is easy. Being a good person, especially when it comes to those not like you, is hard. It’s time for more straight dudes to recognise it, deal with discomfort and support those not like us.


  1. says

    I strongly agree. I think that for many of these issues, the bar has simply been lowered so much that members of some majority (e.g. men) being decent does actually seem laudable because there are so many examples of people being shitbags. I’ve spent a lot of time on Facebook lately trying to combat the shitbaggery surrounding #shirtstorm, and more than one woman has thanked me for speaking out. I’m hesitant to accept their thanks because to me, it just seems like the decent thing to do. Maybe that’s not the best example because it does require active, positive action as opposed to abstaining from doing something harmful, but I still don’t think I deserved any special recognition for doing what seemed like the only right thing to do under the circumstances.

    On the other hand, I know that I can also be a royal asshole on other issues, and I know that it’s when I let my guard down that I am most prone to this. The most worthy character traits require a degree of discipline and self-control, and being decent is no exception, I think.

  2. Hj Hornbeck says

    The problem is I am not a woman. I am going to fuck up and say something stupid. I’m going to support the wrong people or use the wrong phrase; I’ll fuck up terminology and phrasing.

    Hold up, you’ve got two false premises running around there: if you can’t do something perfectly, you shouldn’t do it at all, and that women are inherently better at identifying sexism. The latter is contradicted by the large number of anti-feminist women out there, running the gamut from Phyllis Schaffley to Christina Hoff Sommers. I can point you to science that shows women buy into sexist attitudes at about the same rate as men, too, so your gender should be no obstacle.

    The former is frequently used to jam the wheels of activists. There’s no point in being vegan, opponents cry, because it’s expensive or impossible to completely eliminate animal exploitation from your diet, ignoring the fact that the merely reducing your intake will have a positive benefit. In a similar manner, it’s possible to be a feminist without knowing every fact related to feminism. What do you do when confronted on something you don’t know much about? Simple: research it, or defer to the expertese of more knowledgeable people. If you do overstep and offend someone, apologize and learn from the experience.

    At least some of the issues keeping you from identifying as feminist are solvable. Don’t let them stop you.

    • says

      I agree with all of what you said, but at the end of the day, Tauriq supports women. He doesn’t need to call himself a feminist to do that. He may be uncomfortable with the label, but the ideals of feminism? I’ve only been reading his blog a short time, but I see that he fully supports the goals of feminism.

  3. says

    I don’t think it’s so much about never fucking up, but about recognising that we’re going to fuck up and reacting accordingly, i.e. not doubling down, putting down the shovel and thinking about it.
    I score all the privilege points besides gender, so I have a lot of it. And I fuck up in my support for others, too, and yeah, often the knee-jerk reaction is to double down because I don’t think of myself as an asshole, but a good person.
    But that’s the point: The people who criticise me are not saying “you’re not a good person but an asshole”. The people are saying “you fucked up, please, don’t do this!”
    If I then lash out instead of shutting up for 5 minutes to let my brain cool down and think about what they’re saying, then I become an asshole.

  4. says

    It’s not about being “perfect.” One of the problems with all the Religious Claptrap is the tendency to set impossible standards of “sinless” behavior and then to condemn people for failing to measure up. I think you’re right that being “Good” and doing the right thing isn’t easy. Hell, even figuring out what the “Right Thing” is can be complicated and confusing. But the point is to make the all out effort and if the world is better then you’ve succeeded, even if it’s just a little bit.